A few weeks ago, while out training on the upcoming Steep Canyon 50k course with a few friends, I have one of those moments in running that I’ll never forget.
We’re running as a group along beautiful singletrack trail, when we reach a 1.5 mile descent. It’s steep at times, but after several miles of climbing and rollers, the downhill taunts us to open up and pick up pace.
So we do. Starting with my friend Clint.
He takes off down the mountain at a speed that catches us all off guard. Not to be outdone, we quickly follow.
Hovering on that fine line between control and “oh shit,” this adventure quickly turns into the kind of running where yelps of joy and excitement flow natural.
The Lost Art of Downhill Running
As runners we talk a lot about running uphill. We do hill repeats, focus on running form, hiking form, and attacking hills with purpose.
The often forgotten piece of this hill running puzzle is that what goes up, must also come down.
It’s easy for runners to ignore downhill training because it’s perceived to be easy, and won’t leave you huffing for air or crying from exhaustion.
But run a mountain trail race and it’s easy to see who’s comfortable on the descents and who isn’t.
HINT: The gal who just flew by you going twice as fast while knitting a pair of socks, she’s the comfortable one.
And looking beyond just speed, races too often end in disappointment when a runner’s quads blow out because of downhill pounding, and no longer allow them to move efficiently.
Downhill running is fun. It’s exhilarating and exciting. But it’s also no joke.
And to master the art of downhill trail running, it takes a lot of practice.
5 Elements of Proper Downhill Running Technique
I like to think of downhill running as my dance with the mountain.
If flat running is me showing up, and the climb is my slow and often painful attempt to woo her, the decent is our time to let lose and get freaky.
Some call downhill running “controlled chaos.” I call it “falling in control,” because that’s more of what it looks like. Falling.
Let’s start by braking down the 5 key components to proper downhill technique.
1) Quick Foot and Leg Turnover
If there’s one thing that sets apart a strong descender from a weak one, it’s their cadence. Fast, controlled downhill running requires you to be light on your feet with quick leg turnover.
Barreling down with extended, heavy strides will leave you unbalanced, and create a braking effect that wears out the legs and quads.
Through quick strides, your contact to the ground is short and light. Even if you were to hit an unstable rock or land awkwardly on a root, it shouldn’t matter because the next foot is there to quickly bring you back to balance.
At first this will feel unnatural. Short choppy steps that move all over the trail may feel like a waste of energy. As you get more efficient and confident in your downhill running, it will save a lot of the stress and strength by no absorbing all the impact.
2) Lean Forward, Not Back
When you’re running down a hill, it’s natural to feel timid and stiff. After all, the #1 goal is to stay upright.
But by leaning back and trying to brake with your heel, you’re creating the unneeded strain on your legs and quads that we just talked about.
The good news is that we on Earth have been graced with this thing called gravity, and proper downhill running let’s gravity do all the work. Instead of leaning back, you want to lean in to the hill to stay the most stable. Keep the body perpendicular with the terrain.
In other words, if the ground is slanted down, you want to be leaning forward so that your body remains at a proper T with the trail. Don’t mistake this for bending at the waist, but instead lean from the ankles.
By leaning forward, you’re able to lift the legs up instead of out in front of you. This will keep your foot strike light and on the mid-foot, instead of throwing all your weight and force into the heel.
3) Look Ahead, Not Straight Down
When skiing down a hill, you’re always looking ahead at the line you wish to follow. Where you look is where you point the skies, and where you go.
The same happens with running. When running downhill, especially on technical terrain, the natural thing to do is look straight down at your feet.
Instead you should keep your gaze 5-7 feet in front of you to pick your line. Your brain does amazingly well at addressing each rock ahead of you, even if you aren’t looking right at it.
4) Use the Upper Body for Balance
Going back to that dancing analogy, your downhill upper body form should look very similar to the fluid moves you’re busting on the dance floor.
Don’t tighten the shoulders or keep the arms tucked in close to the chest. Use the upper body for balance, and let the arms flow in the air as if you’re gently flapping them up and down.
5) Descend With Confidence
The second you lose confidence when running downhill is the second you tighten up and slam on the brakes.
Attack the descent just as you would the ascent, with confidence and intention.
Putting It All Together
There’s no better way to put this all together than to watch someone doing it. To help do that, I’ve selected a video of Emelie Frosberg booming down a nice descent in New Zealand. Emelie is one of the top mountain ultra trail runners in the world, and it’s not hard to see why when you witness the downhill confidence she displays in this video.
Check it out:
Notice how she’s:
- Maintaining a quick and controlled cadence
- Landing softly on her mid-foot
- Using the entire trail to bounce around to stay in control
- Flowing her arms for balance
- Gazing ahead, not straight down
How to Train for Descents
Reading those 5 techniques and watching Emelie run makes downhill running appear easy. But as you probably know from experience, it’s not.
It takes a lot of practice to gain confidence, and many hours of training to gain speed. So what do you have to do?
- Downhill Days: Just as you have uphill training days, you should also have downhill training days. The focus should be on the descent, not the climb. Because they work the legs differently, you don’t want combine these two workouts and become overly fatigued. On downhill days, take it easy on the climb and do repeats of hammering the descents.
- Get Creative: If you don’t live near mountains, get creative and create your own. These days most treadmills have an option for downhill. I’ve even heard of people who train on bridges or in parking garages. Use stadiums to run quickly down the steps (instead of up). If you have small hills, turn them into long ones through repeats.
- Build Strength Where It Matters: Whether or not you have hills to train on, you can prepare the legs through strength work. Focus on the areas most affected by descending: quads, hips, core, and ankles.
Just a few weeks of focused downhill training can show major results.
A few final notes about training for the downhills: if on race day you’ll be carrying a pack or lots of additional gear, train with that added weight. Just a few extra pounds can do a real number on your legs and balance. And a good pair of trail shoes (my current favorites are the HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoats), will go a long way with grip and support.
Dance With That Mountain
The current trend in trail running is that tougher is better, and usually tougher means more elevation change.
When done properly, speeding down a hill is not only a blast, but it’s a great way to make up time and pass the many runners who don’t take it seriously.
So go out and dance with that mountain. She’s ready to tango.